MADISON, Wis. – Two children and their mother lived for about two months with the decaying body of a 90-year-old woman on the toilet of their home's only bathroom, on the advice of a religious "superior" who claimed the corpse would come back to life, authorities said Friday.
The children — a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy — cried hysterically Wednesday after a deputy who came to their Necedah home looking for Magdeline Alvina Middlesworth ordered them out because of the stench from her body.
The children were in foster care Friday. Their mother, Tammy Lewis, and self-described "bishop" Alan Bushey remained in custody on felony counts of being a party to causing mental harm to a child.
"It's a sad case, and we'll continue to investigate it and try to ascertain just what occurred up there," Juneau County Sheriff Brent Oleson said. He said he had no further information on Bushey's religious affiliation.
According to the criminal complaint, Middlesworth's sister called sheriff's officials Wednesday and asked them to go to the home about 80 miles north of Madison to check on the woman, who had not been heard from for some time.
When Deputy Leigh Neville-Neil arrived at the house, she encountered Lewis, also known as Sister Mary Bernadett, the complaint said. Lewis, 35, initially refused to allow the deputy to check on Middlesworth, telling her that Middlesworth was on vacation and saying she had to check with her "superior" first.
But she eventually let the deputy in. The house smelled of incense and burned wood, and had religious materials everywhere and hymns playing on the stereo, according to the complaint.
When the deputy opened the last closed door, she smelled "decaying matter" and noticed something piled on what appeared to be a toilet. Lewis told her it was Middlesworth's body, the complaint said.
Lewis told the deputy that Middlesworth had died about two months earlier, but that God told her Middlesworth would come to life if she prayed hard enough.
She said she couldn't say anything more until she spoke with her "superior" — Bushey, 57, also known as Bishop John Peter Bushey.
When Bushey arrived, Lewis told the deputy that Middlesworth had appeared to pass out as Lewis helped her into her underwear.
She said she propped Middlesworth on the toilet and left the room to call Bushey, who told her to leave the woman alone and pray for her, the complaint said. He said he had received signs that God would raise her from the dead with a miracle.
Lewis went on to say she thought Middlesworth was still breathing when she put her on the toilet and called Bushey, instead of an ambulance. She later told a detective she put the woman on the toilet on March 4.
An autopsy has been performed, but results won't be available for some time, Oleson said.
"At this time we don't know what the cause of death was," he said. "Quite frankly, it might have been natural causes."
He described the one-story home in the town of Necedah as in decent repair, although the residents had been using "makeshift" toilet facilities because of the situation in the one bathroom.
The boy at the house told a detective he had considered running away because he was uncomfortable with the situation. He said Bushey told him that demons were trying to make it look as if Middlesworth wouldn't come back to life, and that if she were to be discovered he and the girl would have to go to public school and get jobs because Middlesworth paid the bills.
The boy referred to Middlesworth as "grandmother," the complaint said.
Oleson said Middlesworth was unrelated to Bushey.
"She believed in the same faith as self-proclaimed Bishop Bushey, and that was the connection there," he said.
Oleson said that Middlesworth and Lewis lived at the residence with the children since fall of 2004, and that Bushey lived elsewhere.
Bushey and Lewis are scheduled to make an initial court appearance May 19. Aside from the felony counts, Lewis also was charged with obstructing an officer, a misdemeanor.
The sheriff said cash bond was set Friday at $50,000 each, but Lewis was allowed to post 10 percent for her release.
Computerized state court records had no attorney listed for either suspect on Friday.